Among the 400-meter hurdles contestants who took to the track at Franklin Field for the opening race of the Friday program at the 1976 Penn Relays was a tall and slender man wearing glasses, whom few people recognized by his face or his name.
But Edwin Moses, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, was familiar with Franklin Field, having trained there in each of the two previous summers in the hours away from his work as an industrial engineering intern with Lukens Steel Co. of Coatesville.
Competing for just the third time in the event against the best Eastern runners such as Mike Shine of Penn State and Harold Schwab of Penn, the 20-year-old Moses adroitly negotiated the hurdles and crossed the line first in 49.8 seconds.
The victory at Penn, by far the largest track meet in which he ever had participated, provided a giant boost in a magical season that was highlighted by his Olympic gold-medal-winning performance three months later in Montreal.
"That win at Penn was huge," Moses said Friday in a telephone interview from his Atlanta home. "I proved to myself that I could win against tough competition in a big stadium. I was coming from a school with no track, no stadium, no nothing, just jumping fences on a day-to-day basis.
"So once I won at the Penn Relays, psychologically I knew I had made it to the big time. After that, I didn't think any of those guys could beat me again. I just kept pushing forward. That was the most important aspect for me."
Moses is one of more than 230 Olympic gold medalists who have competed at the Penn Relays. The distinguished athletes range from Yale's Dick Sheldon, who captured the tug-of-war at the 1900 Games, to Vonetta Jeffrey Flowers, a former Alabama-Birmingham long jumper who won bobsled gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
A number of athletes who will compete in the USA vs. the World events next Saturday, the final day of the 118th carnival, already have been awarded gold. But who knows how many collegians, like Moses, will get to the top of the podium, either this year in London or in future years, following a great performance at Penn?
"The Penn Relays is a major track carnival," Moses said. "It was back then. It has its own history. It's the most popular track meet in America and still going strong, one of the few that's going strong. The thing that I remember is being in that stadium, a huge stadium for track and field and always being packed."
Before he burst on to the world stage, Moses, who grew up in Dayton, Ohio, competed in the 110-meter hurdles and the 400-meter run. After receiving an academic scholarship to Morehouse, he had to find high school fields at which to train because the college had no track.
That is why his trips to Philadelphia were so important.
"I was seriously training every summer," he said. "We got out of school in the middle of May. By the first of June, I was already in Philly, so I'd train all of June, all of July, and part of August. That was one of the reasons I improved."
As the 1976 season began, Moses thought he had improved enough to make a bid for the Olympics, but felt the competition in his two events would be too tough. He got serious about the 400 hurdles and made his competitive debut at the Florida Relays where he ran 50.1, about a month before Penn. He ran throughout the spring to gain experience.
Moses set an American record of 48.30 seconds at the U.S. Olympic trials and lowered that mark to a world- record 47.63 at the Olympics, where he danced around the track in a joyous victory lap with Shine, the silver medalist and one of the men he had defeated at Penn.
Moses was just getting started. He lowered his world record three times. After being denied a chance to defend his Olympic championship because of the U.S. boycott in 1980, he captured a second gold in 1984 in Los Angeles. From August 1977 to May 1987, he won 122 consecutive 400-meter hurdles races, with 107 of them being finals.
Moses, 56, who retired after winning a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, is chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy, a London-based organization that uses sports to promote social change. He watches track from a distance, and says athletes today are different from when he competed.
"It's such a different mentality now," he said. "It seems like everyone is trying to win only in the Grand Prix meets for whatever contractual bonuses they have. They don't care about running for the sport the way we did, just pure athletic competition. If you win, you win. If you lose, you lose. Everyone lost.
"I lost all the time," he added with a laugh, "until I started winning."
College men's decathlon
College women's heptathlon
College women's and high school girls' distance medley Championships of America
College men's and women's sprint medley Championships of America
High school girls' 4x400 Championship of America
College men's and women's 4x400 Championship of America
High school boys' 4x400 Championship of America
USA vs. the World men's and women's 4x400
Saturday, 1 p.m. (NBC10)